It’s been a while but I am finally able to chat with an expat again!
Today I have the pleasure of interviewing one of my students, a lovely lady called Susan Dufresne. Susan lives in a place I had never heard of, a small town in Campania called Guardia Sanframondi, and the tales of her life there are so interesting that I asked her to share her experience.
In the interview, Susan tells us about her decision to move to Italy and her life in Guardia Sanframondi but if you really want to know more about that, I highly recommend you check her blog: it’s called Get Lost in Italy and is full of stories of life in Italy, of travel tips for people willing to discover the area where she lives and other places in Italy and of support for those who want to do what Susan did and move to Italy.
But before you go check her blog, read the interview with her so that you’ll get to know her a little bit and learn more about how it is to move from a big American city like San Francisco to a small town in the Italian countryside where many people speak only dialect.
But it’s time to let her speak now!
Hello Susan! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. First of all, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your life and work?
Ciao! I’m an American from Northern California who now lives in a small village in the Campania region. Before I moved to Italy in 2017, my work was as a Marketing Director for a New York company. I lived in several cities before my move to Italy – New York, Chicago, Texas, and then back again to San Francisco. But I was so tired of the grind and needed a big change in my life. Now, I am so lucky, because I live in this beautiful country every day. I started writing a blog about life in Italy called Get Lost in Italy a few months ago. It’s a lot of fun and really just a slice of my life here.
When did you visit Italy for the first time? What was your first impression of the country? And has that first impression changed, after living here for a few years?
My first visit was about 35 years ago when I took an overnight train from Switzerland to Rome and I fell in love immediately. I never forgot that feeling in the years after even though I had traveled to many other countries. It was never the same feeling as I felt in Italy. My impression really hasn’t changed a lot, to be honest. The things I loved about it before are the things I love about it now. The people, sense of community, language, food, and beauty.
Many expats live in Rome or Florence but you are living in quite a remote location. What has brought you there? Why and how did you choose to live there?
I never had a desire to live in a large city in Italy mainly because I had lived the city life for so long and was tired of traffic, lack of space, and too many people. My two big dogs wouldn’t fit in a city either! I knew nothing about Guardia Sanframondi (my new home) or the Campania region other than Naples.
My intention was to move to Sicily or Abruzzo where I knew people and a bit about the area. But strangely, about a month before I was to leave the States to start looking for property in Italy, my sister mentioned that her friend had recently bought a home in Italy and maybe we should connect. So, we did and soon I was on a flight to meet her in Rome. From there we would travel to Guardia which is about 2 ½ hours away and I could meet other expats that had purchased homes and talk to a local attorney about the whole process.
My thinking was that I would look around town, learn a bit about how to buy, talk to the expats, and then go buy my house in Sicily or Abruzzo. It didn’t happen like that. Five days later, I had purchased some land with a little casetta just above town with amazing views, fruit, nut, and olive trees, a space for a big garden, and lots of work to be done. It seems to happen here in Guardia. People come for a visit and leave with a home.
Building a new life abroad is difficult and probably doing it in a small village is even more challenging. Was it easy to get used to living there? What were the biggest challenges you had to face?
It was difficult mainly because I hadn’t lived in a small town since I was very young. I embraced learning the language immediately because I can’t imagine living in a place and not being able to communicate. But I didn’t realize how many people here spoke a dialect. I feel like I’m learning two languages! Dealing with renovating a house, small-town life, and not understanding the language well for the first year was very hard.
And then of course missing my family, sons, and grandchildren. Many times, I questioned myself if this was a selfish move or if I was losing my mind. But I’ve come to realize that it has enhanced my life and I hope the lives of my children and family in the future. Being able to share another way of thinking and living is an amazing experience.
Regarding Italian culture in general, what is the biggest culture shock you experienced? Is there something you still cannot get used to and probably never will?
I grew up in a small Italian and Portuguese community when I was young so many of the things that might be a culture shock for some expats really weren’t for me. The mid-day break or pausa did take a bit of getting used to but now I’m an expert! It was frustrating to not be able to run to the store or go out to eat for lunch because of the 4-hour break. I think here in Southern Italy it is even more extreme. Now I use that time to relax, read, nap, do a little work on the computer, or meet with friends at the places we know are open. It’s pretty wonderful really.
The bureaucracy can be very frustrating. Even simple things like trying to pay a bill online – I still haven’t been able to connect my electric bill online after 3 years. So much of my life was online in the States and now almost nothing is online. Oh, and having to keep copies of everything. That makes me go a little mad. Italians seem to love paper, stamping the papers, and lots of folders. I try not to get too frustrated because I realize how many incredible things there are about my new life in Italy. I hope I appreciate things more now.
When you live in a place for a long time, that place somehow changes the way you are. Do you feel that living in Italy has changed you? If so, in what ways?
Because my time and schedule are now my own, I am not as stressed out. Plus, Italy has a way of either breaking you if you’re too set in your ways or embracing you if you can learn to “go with the flow.” I often wonder if I could ever work as I used to in the States again – I doubt it. My mentality has changed quite a bit and I try to take in the small moments of beauty.
Living far away from your home country must be hard. What do you miss the most about the USA (apart from friends and family, of course)? And what is the one thing about Italy you miss the most when you’re abroad?
I mostly miss the variety of food. But not being able to go out for Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, or a good old-fashioned American meal, whenever I want is something I miss a lot. All the different spices and flavors. There are so many different ethnicities and cultures in the USA which gives us such diverse choices in food.
What I miss the most about Italy when I’m abroad is TRUE Italian food, amazing olive oil, and delicious and economical wines.
Lots of people dream of moving to Italy and sometimes they have a stereotyped image of the country. What are your recommendations for people dreaming of living in Italy?
This is a very good question because I’ve met so many foreigners in Italy who seem to not be able to embrace how Italy really is – not the TV or book version. I would recommend that they visit for longer than a week or two if possible and maybe spend some time away from the major tourist zones to get a better idea of day-to-day life in Italy. I
do believe there is a perfect place for everyone, but you should be clear about what you really want: city life or country life, car or no car, train station nearby, expat community, etc. I always suggest renting for a while until you figure out where and what will make you happy living in another country. It takes a little time and discovery.
Some others wonder how people manage to build a new life in Italy. Can you give some suggestions to people who would like to move to Italy but somehow think it is impossible?
First, I would spend time in Italy to make sure it’s where you want to be; maybe visit friends or relatives who can share the “real Italy” with you. Then you’ll have to deal with the requirements of getting your residency which can be confusing and complicated. I found the Italian Consulate to be very helpful and clear on what exactly is needed. And lastly, I would suggest renting before buying. It will give you an opportunity to make friends, get to know the area, and explore your options.
Let’s speak of tourism now. You live in Guardia Sanframondi, a small village in the countryside: can you tell us a bit more about the area? Is it worth exploring?
Guardia, a village of about 4,000 people, is an anomaly because we have a large number of expats who have purchased homes here. It is due mostly to be featured on the TV show “House Hunter’s International” about 4-5 times. We have expats from Scotland, England, Canada, USA, Australia, and many other countries. Most of them have second homes here which they visit once or twice a year. There are about 15 of us that live here year-round. I bring this up because the expats are always looking to explore and find new places to visit.
Guardia is located in a wonderful position in Campania. It sits up on the mountainside with vineyards as far as you can see. We’re in the heart of one of the largest wine cooperatives known for their Falanghina and Aglianico wines, easy driving distance to both the Amalfi and Adriatic Coasts, and we are surrounded by the Taburno and Matese mountains.
Guardia is well-known for the Riti Settinnali, a week-long religious event which happens every 7 years, and Vinalia, our wine festival held every year in August. We were also one of 5 towns in Italy awarded the European City of Wine in 2019. It’s a very special place.
Do you speak Italian? If you do, what is your relationship with the language? Was it hard to learn it? And do you maybe have tips for other learners?
Improving my Italian is something I work on every day. I am probably an upper beginner or lower intermediate level. Some days I feel I’m making real progress and then the next, it seems like I can’t remember anything. Since my move to Italy, I’ve taken online group lessons which helped a lot.
Some of my best teachers were the guys doing my house renovation who I would talk to every day. I know a lot of home repair words! I wrote about my journey learning Italian on my blog and even have a freebie with my best tips. I’m always trying to learn in a way that is fun and helps me to memorize, like songs.
My biggest tip and the one that has helped me the most is to just start speaking. I know it is scary and embarrassing and I’m constantly saying the wrong things. But it’s worth the great feeling you get when you’re can be understood and have a conversation no matter how basic.
Thank you so much, dear Susan, for taking the time to answer my questions!
If you are interested in more thoughts about Italy, I have a whole section of interviews with expats. I have chatted with a Canadian living in Bergamo, a Polish girl in love with Rome, an American artist who lives in Umbria, another American who moved to beautiful Tuscany, a Mancunian who now resides in Molise, a Scottish lady who is now happily living in Veneto, a British couple who lives and work in Garfagnana, Tuscany, a US lady who runs a hostel in Rome, an American lady who now lives in a beautiful Tuscan villa, a lovely couple who lives in Tuscany part-time, a writer from Seattle who has been living in Rome for 15 years now, a couple who has just gotten Italian citizenship, a lovely Texan who moved to a tiny little Italian village, a super energetic travel expert from the US now living in Rome, two young YouTubers who live in Prato, Tuscany, a Texan lady who lives in Turin, Slovak girl who now calls Bologna home, a Mississippi lady who is now Neapolitan, a girl from Canada who has fulfilled her dream of living in Florence and a New Yorker who now calls Ischia home.